Jeff Stoutland had a message for the scouts who questioned Landon Dickerson’s athleticism, or supposed lack thereof:
“You missed the boat,” the Eagles offensive line coach said.
Most NFL teams had Dickerson ranked high on their draft boards, and if there was a chief concern about the Alabama offensive lineman the Eagles drafted in the second round, it centered on his extensive injury history. But there were evaluators, several who were quoted anonymously in The Athletic, who were blunt in their assessments.
“He’s been hurt his whole life, and he’s limited athletically,” one scout said in the April article. “Does the guy have any talent? No. Just a guy.”
Stoutland didn’t necessarily have a problem with the criticism, especially if it deterred other teams from selecting him. But his projection, and that of the Eagles’ personnel department, was much different.
“I get what the person is saying in terms of there were times when he’s not moving around, he’s not moving his feet — that’s not untrue,” Stoutland said last week. “The question is: Can he move his feet? Now I will say this to the person who said that: That’s a fallacy.
“Because on the film this year, you’ll see quickness, you’ll see suddenness that will shock you.”
Unfortunately for the Eagles, Dickerson was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list Sunday. He had yet to be ruled out for Tuesday’s postponed game against Washington as of Monday, but if he can’t dress, Sua Opeta will start in his place at left guard.
The improvement Dickerson has made since his early struggles could make his absence a significant one. Stoutland, though, has long worked miracles. Dickerson looked overwhelmed in his first few games, for instance, not unlike many rookies tossed into a starting role in their first season.
“Early on, I thought he was out of balance,” Stoutland said. “He wasn’t synchronized. He was all over the place a little bit. Getting thrown off blocks and he still at times does. But we’re trying to get that cleaned up and we’re trying to give him coaching points.”
At Alabama, Dickerson would often rely on his size and brute strength. In the NFL, though, he would need to utilize the athleticism he does have to maintain a proper “relationship” — Stoutland’s term — with defensive linemen to keep his balance and prevent from getting edged.
According to Stoutland, when an O-lineman sets to an exact spot, he can take away both edges.
“There’s a fine line,” Stoutland said. “But once he was able to visualize and conceptualize this idea, he got much better.”
Dickerson was particularly hard on himself when publicly asked about his initial performances. But even after obvious advancement over the next few months, he still said he had yet to play up to his and the Eagles’ standards.
“If you get complacent,” Dickerson said earlier this month, “why would you ever say you’re doing good at something?”
It’s that kind of mindset, Stoutland contended, that has helped contribute to Dickerson’s turnaround.
“He’s not an excuse guy,” Stoutland said. “He owns up to everything.”
The 23-year-old Dickerson also has the common denominators, the veteran assistant said, that all good players he’s coached have: a passion and interest in football that allows for a willingness to take instruction, and the intelligence to process and simulate it.
Physically, Stoutland said the 6-foot-6, 333-pound Dickerson reminded him of Shaun Mason, an offensive lineman he coached at Michigan State in the early 2000s. While Eagles coach Nick Sirianni offered high praise in comparing him to Colts All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson, Stoutland delved deep into his many pupils.
“You talk about the exact replica of a person? Shaun Mason, right there,” Stoutland said.
Mason never got to play a down in the NFL. He injured a shoulder during East-West Shrine practices before the draft and during surgery a cancerous tumor was found. He underwent treatment, but doctors advised against playing football ever again.
Dickerson never had a medical condition as significant, but he saw his share of doctors during college. Torn ACLs in both knees and injuries to both ankles ended four of his five seasons. The Eagles rolled the dice, though, even though their history of drafting prospects with medical red flags was dubious.
Dickerson missed most of training camp and the season opener as he recovered from his second ACL tear, but he was active for Week 2. It took less than a half before he was on the field. Brandon Brooks tore a pectoral muscle and Dickerson took his spot at right guard.
He has mostly held up in terms of his health. He’s left two games for brief spells after getting dinged, but overall has played 735 of 755 offensive snaps (97.4%) when in the lineup.
The O-line has arguably been the Eagles’ best unit and played a major role in their offensive rebound. Dickerson, after a rocky start, has been as much a part of that breakthrough as anyone. And the film backs it up.
Stoutland sat with The Inquirer and went through various cut-ups to explain the rookie’s development.
Dickerson (No. 69) was tossed into the fire against the 49ers back in September. He was driven back on skates nearly into Jalen Hurts (No. 1) on his first snap, and later allowed a quarterback hit that resulted in an incomplete pass.
“He’s not wide enough,” Stoutland said. “His relationship is not wide enough. He’s shallow-setting this guy. See how he’s way the [heck] inside? Now he’s going to get beat on the edge.
“When I can keep a guy in front of me, he can’t get to my edge. All these defensive guys want to work ‘half a man.’ That’s what defensive coaches tell the D-line: ‘Work half the man,’ so they get to the edge and then it’s over. Or if you overset them, they go to this half.”
A week later against the Cowboys, Dickerson continued to have problems against the rush. He allowed an early sack.
“He has a little bit better stance, in terms of his set line, his relationship is a little bit wider,” Stoutland said. “What I don’t like – see how Lane [Johnson’s] (No. 65) feet are moving, see how Andre Dillard’s (No. 77) feet are moving? And this is what happened in college and this is why people said what they said: he just stands there and tries to muscle people.”
Stoutland said Dickerson has a tendency to lean forward. To improve his balance, he emphasized to him the importance of getting into a position of stability, much like a weightlifter would when doing squats.
Stoutland, who has a masters in exercise science, said he would have Dickerson get into a duck position and place his hands behind his back. He would then push and pull him so that he could feel his weight falling through his joints.
“Those three angles,” Stoutland said pointing to his hips, knees and ankles, “those are your power-producing angles. … I want all my weight to fall through these three angles. And if I’m in this position, I’m in pretty good balance. The battle of balance is going on constantly.”
Dickerson started to show marked improvement in his pass sets by Week 4 and after he moved to and settled at left guard. The Bucs’ Vita Vea (No. 90) is a different specimen than the above defensive tackles. But Dickerson did well here to fend off the 350-pounder’s bull rush.
“Go back to the relationship thing I talked about. That’s where I start. How fast did you move that left foot to get to that relationship?” Stoutland said. “Now that’s not bad. He can’t get beat as easy outside, he can’t beat easily inside. He’s got a little lean going forward, though. See that?”
In Dickerson’s first four games, he allowed 16 pressures in 177 pass snaps (9%), per Pro Football Focus. But in his next eight, he allowed only 9 pressures in 247 sets (3.6%).
“See, that’s better,” Stoutland said. “He’s not going to lose him as long as the quarterback doesn’t get 10 yards deep.”
Every O-lineman must block on screens. Some, like Eagles center Jason Kelce (No. 62), thrive when in space. Dickerson doesn’t have his agility — most don’t — but as he showed on this screen, he can more than get the job done.
“Here’s what’s great about this: He doesn’t block 56,” Stoutland said. “You don’t want to ever block a blitzer on a screen. If you stop a rusher on a screen, your screen’s dead. So he bypasses this guy like two ships passing in the night.”
Dickerson led the way for running back Boston Scott (No. 35) as Kelce circled back for the chasing lineman.
“I call that ‘pizza theory,’” Stoutland said of how they divvied up blocking. “If I take a slice of yours, you take a slice of mine.”
While Stoutland said Dickerson can do it all, the Eagles’ gradual shift to a run-based system has seemingly benefitted Dickerson.
“If you said to me, ‘I need to know … right now.’ Yeah, he’s a better run blocker than he is a protector,” Stoutland said. “But I think he’s a well-rounded player. He’s not susceptible by any means. He’s so big and strong, people can’t run through him.”
And he can clear out lanes as he did below on this under center run by running back Miles Sanders (No. 26).
That doesn’t mean he’s been perfect.
The Eagles didn’t have great numbers on the above zone read play. The Panthers were also shading a linebacker over the unblocked edge defender to account for Hurts. But Stoutland, who also acts as the Eagles’ run game coordinator, kept adding wrinkles to the run designs to counter defenses as the season progressed.
It also helps to have mountain movers up front. Scott was able to avoid an initial stop on this carry, but Dickerson drove his man back nearly 10 yards from the line.
“What I try to say is ‘glue, glue,’ like Elmer’s Glue. Glue the block,” Stoutland said. “Don’t push him away from you. Now you got to go get him again. Stick him with your hands and bring him to you.
“Why push you away from me and then have to go block you again, when I could stick my hands on you and glue you?”
Stoutland offered the same instruction for Dickerson on the below combo block.
“If that player steps out toward the tackle, and this tackle’s a very good player and he can handle himself, I would like you to get a ‘void,’” Stoutland said. “I would like you to release and get to the next level and engulf the linebacker. Engulf the linebacker. I don’t think he’s ever been taught that before.”
Stoutland’s zone-blocking schemes are among the most intricate in the NFL and the secret to their success may come down to geometry.
“If you create triangles on either side of the line, meaning you get up on the linebacker, so that the guard gets on this linebacker, the down guys are blocking here, these are triangles,” Stoutland said. “This is the kryptonite to defenses. This is how you run the ball.
“If you let the defense run downhill and form one line of defense … you ain’t peeing a drop.”
“If the combination block has moved away from you, get the hell out of there and get to the next level and create the triangle,” Stoutland said. “I showed him on film. I showed him Kelce, I showed him Lane, I showed him [Jason Peters], I showed him the guards. And he’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh. I didn’t realize that.’”
It helps to have talent, and on the Eagles’ left flank, young talent with tackle Jordan Mailata and Dickerson. That’s around 700 pounds of protection, or when Stoutland has them pulling, like he did on this play, about a third of a ton with acceleration.
“People who are watching film they’re going, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to take this on. I’ve got to defend this? This guy is running full speed and he doesn’t slow down at all?’” Stoutland said. “And I’m really, pleasantly surprised. I know he had some quickness to him, but his asset is that he’s strong, physical.
“But now on top of it to know that he does have this suddenness and quickness in small spaces, I’m so happy about that.”
Maybe the scouts who questioned his athleticism see it now, too.
“I don’t know who said that,” Dickerson said. “If they don’t coach me or write my paychecks, I don’t really care.”